Teach A Kid To Fish...

Teach A Kid To Fish...

It’s so tempting sometimes to actually teach my kids some history. But I can’t. 

Well, I CAN – it’s just I know I shouldn’t. Not very often. Teaching them stuff is, um… bad. 

Direct instruction has been weighed and found wanting, as the amount of information available is simply too vast and the needs of the next generation too unpredictable to settle on this or that bucket of knowledge as canon. We are called, it seems, to teach them to think! To question! To boldly go where no student has gone before! 

Serious Woman

If you read the various criticisms of lectures and other teacher-driven, direct-instruction-ish stuff, you’d think the underlying problem is that such things are ineffective. That’s not true. 

I give pretty sweet lectures, packed with content and connection and interaction with students – all sorts of edu-goodness. When former students come back to visit, or email me years later, they may thank me for pushing coherent thesis sentences – but they remember with enthusiasm the stuff from the lectures. They tell me how it was the first time they’d liked history, or understood government, or whatever, and tell me stories of how something learned therein came in handy in subsequent academia. 

The problem isn't that my activities or direct instruction aren’t effective; the problem is that they leave me doing so much of the work. As a department and a district, we've prioritized teaching kids to think, and to learn, and to function. We're trying to make our students into students.


We're trying to teach them to ask various types of questions effectively, to dig into documents or statistics or pictures and ponder what those sources do or don't communicate, and how they do or don't communicate it. We want them to read and write coherently, and above all else - and this is the killer - we're trying to teach them not to be helpless little nurslings in the face of every idea, task, or challenge. 

That part feels damn near impossible most days. If ignorance is a mighty river, we’re that ichthus fish swimming against the tide – losing out to the gar of apathy and the tuna of better-things-to-do. 

Seriously, we should make shirts. 

This is where the idealists jump in to argue that we can do both - we can teach content THROUGH the skills! Whoever's doing the struggling is doing the learning! Let's celebrate this breakthrough! 

The learning DOES happen in the struggle - this is dogma to me. I would argue, however, that we must inculcate and consciously teach the struggle. Our darlings do not, by and large, come with a built in appreciation of struggle - at least in application to education. Some struggle enough getting through the rest of their worlds and have little energy left for academic wrestling matches. Others push themselves quite impressively through their own little zone of proximal development while playing music or sports or video games, but lack enthusiasm for transferring the principle to unpacking the Federalist #10. 

It's that teaching of the struggle that's killing me. 

It's not an intelligence problem, or an attitude problem. It's not even the challenge of the content.

Kid Stuck

It’s the mindset of helplessness and a sort of dazed, bewildered hurt they experience at the least of my expectations. That's what I can’t seem to overcome. I don't know how to fix it. I must fix it, of course - we're no longer allowed to let kids fail in any way, shape or form - we must save them repeatedly or they'll never learn to be independent, self-directed learners.

Forget analyzing the Federalist Papers, I can’t get them to reference my class webpage for help or assignments they’ve missed, let alone videos I’ve posted for them to watch. And getting them to check their own grades online rather than expect I spend half of every class period EVERY DAY explaining what they haven’t turned in (“but I wasn’t here that day”) – you’d think I’d handed them a scalpel and suggested they do their own colon splicing.

It’s not that they don’t know how the internet works - Google is their info-god. It simply never occurred to them that not EVERYTHING associated with school would be photocopied and hand-delivered to their backpack as many times as they can lose it. The drive – the initiative – the risk-taking craziness required to click on a few things or look on more than one page or ask questions of the people around them – it’s simply beyond many of them. 

Poor BabyWe’ve taught them to be completely helpless. We’ve trained them not to move until we tell them exactly what to do, and how, and then do it for them. The learning does indeed happen in the struggle, but how do they learn to struggle without, well... struggling? 

I don’t say this to curse them or bust out the standard “kids these days” routine. It’s a new generation and we’re going to have to figure out some new ways to reach them. That’s fine – that’s why I make the big bucks. I'm SO up for the challenge.  

Most days. 

But it makes me tired. The number of ways students go out of their way to make their own learning untenable is fascinating. The internal mechanisms protecting them from forward momentum are legion. The currently trending vision of an edu-spirational Arcadia where students are natural learners if only the damn teachers would get out of the way is ridiculous. Come watch 200 kids in the commons a half-hour before school starts staring bored into space rather than risk reading or finishing their math and tell me how self-actuated they are. 

Dragged You For A While

I love them, you understand – but I drag them into the light kicking and screaming, if at all. Meanwhile, I hear repeatedly that I should be letting them do more of the dragging.  

I’m not supposed to spoon-feed them, but they won’t chew – and they’re starving, informationally-speaking. 

I’m not giving up on them, but more and more I’m wondering if the skills and mindset I’m failing to instill are worth the trade-off of basic knowledge and cultural literacy I could lead them through instead. AND the results are clearly measurable - we like that, right? 

Support GroupI feel myself giving in… letting go of the idealistic ‘oughta work’ and looking longingly towards the ‘would actually result in learning.’ I feel myself slipping off-program, avoiding my admins, and lying to my PLC about what I'm really doing in class that day. 

I want to just teach them stuff about history and government and things that actually matter to them in the real world right now. I want to see that look where they 'get it' and remember it and love me for it. I don't care if they become self-directed learners THIS year. I don't care if they don't master document analysis or political cartoons or thesis sentences anymore. 

I'm tired. Maybe I'll just teach a little... just this week... I won't get hooked. I can quit any time I want - I swear. Just say the word and I'll... I'll flip my lesson and establish mastery-based standards achieved through collaboration, I promise! But just give me a little... one PowerPoint over the Progressives... one crazy story about Andrew Jackson and I'll stop. 

I promise.

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Am I naive to think that everyone has to agree that most kids won't be willing to struggle unless we hook them on the content first? Even when I taught formal logic, where the skills were the content, I had to mix some content sugar in with the formal shredded wheat.


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